Nuance and shading out; clarity in


Link: Newspapers search for Web headline magic | CNET

The Wall Street Journal Online posted a story with the headline: “Green Beans Comes Marching Home.”

It happened to be an article about the Green Beans Coffee Co., which serves overseas U.S. military bases, opening its first cafe in the United States.

Let’s say you were interested in the subject but didn’t know the Journal had written an article on it. You might type into a search engine some combination of keywords like “Green Beans,” “coffee,” “U.S. military,” “bases” and “soldiers.” Various combinations failed to return a link to the article in the first page of results on Google. Using all of the keywords and terms separated like that did find the article, but not on The Wall Street Journal site. Instead, it was on a blog site that had reposted the article word for word.

The example points to the dilemma many newspapers and other print media find themselves in when posting articles online. Pithy, witty and provocative headlines–the pride of many an editor–are often useless and even counterproductive in getting the Web page ranked high in search engines. A low ranking means limited exposure and fewer readers.

News organizations that generate revenue from advertising are keenly aware of the problem and are using coding techniques and training journalists to rewrite the print headlines, thinking about what the story is about and being as clear as possible. The science behind it is called SEO, or search engine optimization, and it has spawned a whole industry of companies dedicated to helping Web sites get noticed by Google’s search engine.

Here’s yet another confirmation of the Law of Unintended Consequences (or How Humans Become Servants to the Machines…)

What’s interesting here is to take a moment to speculate how our need to “think in a more machine parse-able manner” probably changes our sense of how knowledge works and by extension, the way we express ourselves. People, learning to express themselves in a manner that works well in a epoch of robot search engines are no longer taking time to play with ideas and try to find interesting internal connections in their thoughts.

I think it’s pretty obvious how this is effecting our theological discourse. (Maybe that’s why I find Eastern Orthodoxy and its comfort level with Mystery so compelling.)

To be truthful, I think the primary driver in our movement toward precision in language is probably an over appreciation for the Newtonian world-view. In Newton’s universe things have one meaning and what is stated is stated unambiguously. As we’ve come to rely on computers and mechanical devices more and more (which are based, for now, on this deterministic way of thinking) I wonder if this is unintentionally becoming our most preferred thought world?

The digital age has taught us the power of binary thinking – and we unthinkingly expect that sort of reasoning to work in all the parts of our life.

But of course, determinism is merely an illusion. Our problem (IMHO) is that we keep forgetting that.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Michael Young says

    Your comments drew me back to a verse drama I’d not read for years: Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, his mythology of human suffering—and redemption. Asia, consort of Prometheus, delivers an extended creation narrative in the second act, in which Prometheus graces humanity with each of the arts and sciences in turn. Among the earliest is language: “He gave man speech, and speech created thought, Which is the measure of the Universe.’ Ironically, the rest of the drama enacts his own struggle to escape the deterministic, binary world view your own entry warns against: a triumph Shelley frames, you’ll be pleased to recognize, in the languages of physics and astronomy (Armillary spheres abound!) Thanks for directing our attention to the mutual creation of thought and speech, what we lose (in aesthetics and understanding) when we sacrifice complexity, and the need for free cognitive and linguistic play.

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